Rachel Tonnis toyed with the idea of medicine from an early age. As a young child, she played with her Fisher-Price doctor’s bag. As a teenager, she dreamed of one day becoming a physician.
Then while in college a summer spent as a camp counselor for children with diabetes helped secure her track into medicine. She graduated with a science pre-professional major from the University of Notre Dame, but realized she still needed an edge as part of the competitive journey to medical school.
Tonnis, now a fourth-year medical student at the University of Cincinnati, entered UC’s Special Master’s Program (SMP) in Physiology in 2014. The intensive one-year master of science (MS) program immersed her in graduate-level physiology courses and allowed her to take classes that are a part of the first-year medical-school curriculum. She sat in four of the same classes as the medical students learning bedrock courses such as Fundamentals of Molecular Medicine and Fundamentals of Cellular Medicine along with other requirements.
“I really liked being able to take these courses alongside the medical students,” says Tonnis, who hopes someday to become a pediatrician. “We were in the same classroom with the same teachers on the same day. You got a feel for what being a medical student would be like without necessarily having to commit to the full four years. I decided that is what I wanted and it gave me confidence going into the first year.”
John Lorenz, PhD, director of the Special Master’s Program and professor in the Department of Pharmacology and Systems Physiology, says the program’s immersive experience in the medical curriculum is a major draw. “The program is designed to provide excellent students with the opportunity to demonstrate that they can succeed and even thrive in an actual medical-school environment. In many ways, it is a second chance for these students.”
Like many of the top programs in the country, the UC program accepts students who may have blemishes on their prior academic record but who have shown that they are ready to live up to their academic potential, says Lorenz.
“A large part of the motivation to go here is knowing they will have a first-year experience that will help them get into medical school and then help them do well in medical school once they are in,” Lorenz says. “The curriculum gives them confidence they will get off on the right foot.”
Bryan Mackenzie, PhD, co-director and director of admissions of the Special Master’s Program, says medical-school admissions committees can see exactly how these students are able to perform relative to actual first-year medical students. That gives admissions committees some sense of comfort when making decisions.
“Our primary purpose with the program is to improve our students’ credentials so they can get into medical school,” says Mackenzie. “We have students whose undergraduate record doesn’t reflect their true academic abilities. Those students come with strong MCAT scores and have done some medical exploration but they need to improve their academic credentials. Other students come because their undergraduate training has been in something completely unrelated to the sciences.
“We have had music majors who decide they want to go to medical school,” says Mackenzie. “They need to demonstrate that they can navigate the medical curriculum and are well prepared.”